The pandemic and racial inequity: City Connects in Salem













In Salem, Mass., coping with COVID-19 and building greater racial equity is a community effort that relies in part on City Connects. 

So far this fall, Salem Public Schools’ classes have all been remote, with some higher-needs children doing their remote learning in school buildings where they’re supervised by adults. But as Salem’s new Superintendent, Stephen Zrike, recently announced, the city plans to switch to a hybrid model later this month.

“I think the fact that all of our pre-K-to-eight schools have City Connects as their system of student support was really a boon for us during COVID,” Ellen Wingard, Salem’s City Connects Program Manager, says. 

The priority for Wingard and the City Connects Coordinators she supervises has been meeting basic needs, connecting families to food and to help with housing. Wingard’s school and city colleagues have put together one-page resource sheets for coordinators and families so they can see what services are available. 

In addition, as part of a new family intervention strategy, Salem Public Schools staff members, including teachers and paraprofessionals, have been gathering information on students’ needs by reaching out every week to ten families and asking five questions:

• Are you having difficulty with any technology device or internet access? 

• Do you have access to enough food for everyone in your household?

• Do you have everything you need to help manage your families physical health?

• Do you have everything you need to help manage your families mental health? 

• When you look back on this past week, was school a positive learning experience for your child overall? 

The answers to these questions go to coordinators so they can work to connect families to services and address the needs of children who are deeply disconnected from remote learning. 

“This strategy reveals needs and gives us consistent data. That’s important because we know there are going to be a lot of changes. We know families are going to lose jobs and kids are going to get sick. We know there are going to be positive Covid tests. So we want to maintain this universal outreach to families. And we want the families to know that – whether they need something or not — we care.” 

City Connects coordinators are also asking another important question. 

“For our whole class reviews this fall, the team agreed that for each review, we were going to ask the same question about every student: How can we elevate a student’s connection to school?” Wingard says. 

What students need, of course, varies. Some children may need clothes. Others may need help forging friendships. 

“We know, this is a hard time, and we know that connection is one of the biggest things we have to do for kids.” 

Wingard says Salem is also tackling “the double pandemic of racial inequity and racial injustice. We’re in a time where this is really hitting us hard. And our district leaders — our principals and our superintendent – are feeling like it’s time to really address these challenges.” 

For Wingard this means talking with coordinators about the difference between working “for” families and working “with” them. Working “with” families is a stronger approach that both connects families to community services and enables them to make connections on their own. 

“Coordinators aren’t just people who do turkey and clothing drives. Coordinators have to use their clinical and social work expertise. We need to guard against our own assumptions about families’ needs, especially with black and brown kids. The equity piece is helping families get what they actually need — which is going to be different for every family — and it’s empowering families to use these resources.” 

In Salem and other school districts, Wingard says, the pandemic demands that educators do something that is both brand new and exhausting: keep schools going, keep the school community safe, and keep children learning. 

It’s grueling work, but Wingard says having a system like City Connects helps.

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